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Adventures with Homer

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson. Norton. $39.95.
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

Emily Wilson’s new translation offers a blank verse line-by-line translation of Homer’s dactylic hexameter (18 syllables but Greek is a quantitative language and not accentual like English). Her condensed 10 syllable line occasionally becomes hendecasyllabic (eleven syllables, the primary vehicle of Latin and Italian poetry). The extra syllable remains unstressed, an idea and practice first formulated by Francis William Newman’s (Cardinal Newman's younger brother) unrhymed 1856 translation of Homer’s Iliad where (in the Preface) Newman recommends ending lines with an unstressed syllable.

William Cowper’s 1791 translation of the Odyssey was in wondrously accomplished blank verse, but it was not a line-by-line translation. (Also, Homeric scholarship has made many advances since then in terms of accuracy.) I asked Wilson what she thought of Cowper’s translation. She replied that she glanced at it but did not really read it, yet Cowper was a great poet who is today probably underrated. This was a wise reply because when doing my own (unpublished) translation of the Odyssey ten years ago I, too, glanced at it and admired it so much that I decided that I could not read more than the first eight books lest I be over-influenced by its brilliance. Wilson's lecture at Bard this past Friday afternoon was brilliant, amusing, and nimble. One student asked if she would read aloud Homer’s proem in her translation. This was helpful as the music of her Staffordshire accent enlivened her lines with a different accentual rhythm than an American might employ in reading. (The Staffordshire accent resembles the Dublin accent, both close to what would have been Shakespeare’s accent. Emily’s mother Katherine Duncan-Jones teaches Shakespeare at Oxford; Emily’s father is the biographer and novelist A.N. Wilson.) There is an audio book version in the works and I hope the actor has a Staffordshire accent.)

There is a recent spate of new translations of Homer. Part of this story is the huge high-school and college market. The Penguin translations of Robert Fagles were immensely successful in that market but Fagles did not know Greek very well and there has finally been a reaction to his presentation of Homer as a high-school football captain in his version of the Iliad and Homer as a post-modern philosophe academic in the Odyssey. The recent translation of the Odyssey by professional translator Stephen Mitchell often collapses into leaden prose while the new translation from the Greek scholar Peter Green lacks poetic heft.

Wilson’s translation is both rigorous and deft, yet it is meant to appeal both to the average reader as well as the sophisticated reader, a quality that is the signature characteristic of Homer. There are over seventy translations of the Odyssey in English. Wilson’s eloquent translation will now supplant the sophisticated Lombardo translation (2000) for the college market when released in paperback. She has a five-year contract from Norton to produce a translation of the Iliad, a far more difficult task that features a much larger canvas with a greater cast of characters; the challenge will be to provide lively characterization and convey rapidity without creating monotony, since longer poetic lines in English often descend into a sluggish morass. Wilson offers the public a lively Twitter feed on Homer.